The end of one year. The start of another. A time filled with new hopes and old memories. At my age, the later takes up the most daydreaming.
Thinking back earlier today, I realized that which I always considered my start in show biz, wasn’t. Before I was hired by the U of Mn to be the assistant stage manager at Northrop Auditorium, a 5,000 set house that was home to University events, Mpls Symphony Orchestra, rock concerts, even a week each year of seven different Met Opera of New York productions, I had my first taste of show biz back in grade school
I was cast as Scrooge’s nephew in that one-room, one-teacher, all eight grades-schoolhouse’s production of A Christmas Carol.
The only line I remember was, ‘Christmas, a humbug, Uncle! Surely, You don’t mean that’. Scrooge growled. And I exited to polite silence from the audience. Not much an actor can do with a vanilla role like the Nephew.
The star of the production was the turkey, a football with paper-mache drumsticks. When it was brought out on the platter, the audience roared, biggest reaction of the day.
I got a lot of laughs though, in the spring variety show, I got a comedy skit because I could do a good Swedish accent. The teacher brought in a prop she had used in her other schools’ variety shows. It was a very old telephone, the one that had the talking tube attached to the wall and the listening tube on a cord, the one you had to twirl a crank and ask a live operator to get you such and such a person. I asked to speak to the doctor.
‘Vell, Doctor, I vas putin da cooper under the mule’s tail… Yah, dat’s vhen he kicked me. Sent me a flyin. No, I ban ok. Landed in the soft manure pile. But that mule is sure hurtin cuz I kicked him back…’
This time I excited to a big round of applause. Heck, I thought, maybe someday I’ll do my act on a TV show like Milton Berle’s.
That teacher left after that one year and was replaced by a nineteen year teacher. One year of her and my folks sent me to a parochial school in St. Paul, reached by a mile walk to the mile-long Mendota Bridge and a ten mile street car ride. Nice weather I hiked. Bad weather, Dad got up, having only slept a few hours after working the night shift in the packing house, and drove me to the streetcar. I finished my 6th, 7th, and 8th grades there.
It was in the 8th grade where I worked as a stagehand for the very first time. It was love at first sight. No, not the work…the gal puppeteer. Long black hair. Deep brown eyes. Exotic looking. Years later, I would go on a blind date with a gal that fitted that description. Again love at first sight. So much so, that two years later we were married.
But to get back to my my story. Sister Kenneth, my 8th grade teacher, whom I also had a crush on, (Just a normal boy in his puberty dilemma),sent me and three other boys backstage at the gym/auditorium to help put up the touring puppet show for a school assembly.
One sound effects geek, Larry. The head puppeteer/boss. And her, Rita.!
Mr. Hot-Shot honcho ordered us around like we were something he stepped in the dog park. She talked to us softly and said ‘please’ when she asked us to do something. Hot-Shot treated her just like he treated us. At one point he even swore at her!
That did it. I got in his face. Looking up, quite a ways up, I warned him to watch his language and treat people with respect, or …
‘Or what, little mouth? Or what? You and your gang going to do something about it?’ He looked around at the other three kids; but just laughed when he saw that they had their backs to us, a sign I was on my own. ‘Looks like you’re on your own, dude.’
‘No! There’s also Sister Kenneth. She won’t like the way you’re acting. Hollering! Swearing! She’ll run you and your wooden dolls right out the door. Then she’ll call and have you booted off the school tour…’
I was getting his attention. The sound guy whispered something in his ear. Finally Hot Shot backed off and suggested we get back to the set- up.
Exhibiting a fault that would get me in trouble throughout my life, I wanted the last word and told him that he should apologize to Rita. and say please to us before we went back to back to work.
He just glared at me. One of my gang started whistling Whistle While You Work. Rita, standing behind Hot Shot, was shaking her head no and mouthing please. The sound man asked that I come and help him.
‘Or,’ I said, ‘we could just get back to work.’ She nodded in agreement.
It was a good show. There was a Punch and Judy skit and several others leading up to the finale. There was the sound of hooves, followed by a cowboy and his mule plodding slowly along, actually walking in place; it was just a small space. The Sons of the Pioneers were singing Cool Water. The cowboy was holding a canteen that he tuned upside down to show it was dry. At one point the mule stumbled. Song ended. Lights down. Lights up. The cowboy and mule bowed. The three artists came around and bowed. Hot Shot gave a short thank you speech, mentioning Sister Kenneth and the four hands sent to help set-up. The stage curtain closed and us four hands ran backstage. I was assigned working with the sound man. Rita and the other three worked on the set. Hot Shot had the puppets laid out on a couple tables and was carefully preparing each one to be placed in their packing box.
And all the while he was criticizing his coworkers. The sound man came in too late on one cue. The hooves beat sounded just like banging coconut shells on a table, which was how the sound was made. And he had numerous complaints as to how Rita worked her strings, especially working the mule.
‘Looked great from where I was sitting,’ I blurted out. And then, again with a prod, ‘I thought the mule was the best part of the show.’
He glared at me! ‘Sister Kenneth thought so too.’ I pulled that one out of my hat. But the mention of her name cooled him down. He finished packing his puppets, the cowboy on top. covering them up with the puppet stage curtain. He said he was going to get the van and told the Larry to button up the crates. He motioned to Rita to step outside with him.
He was yelling so loud we could hear every word. He didn’t like the way she handled the set-up, or the performance, or the pack-out. He went so far as saying he might have to get a different assistant. And he swore a lot.
I committed a cardinal sin of show business. I broke a prop…on purpose.
While Larry and the other three hands were facing the loading door, I opened the puppet crate. Reached beneath the fabric and grabbed the cowboy puppet’s arm…and snapped it!
As soon as I heard the crack, I felt guilty, wishing I hadn’t done what I did. I jerked my hands from the box, and silently closed the lid. A foolish act committed by a young boy suffering the dilemma of puberty.
We finished the load out and both Larry and Rita thanked us. She gave me a smile. I smiled back, but I wasn’t happy to see her walk out of my life.
Mr. Hot Shot wasn’t content to give us a short thank you. He had to puff up his chest and go on about how we were the best crew he worked with in any of the schools. You could tell it was rehearsed and given at every school he worked at. When he finished he turned and left the building.
‘Goodbye, good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass when you leave,’ I shouted. ‘Ouch!’ Somebody pulled my ear…hard. I knew who that somebody was right away. Sister Kenneth.
I turned quickly and defended myself by saying, ‘That guy was a real jerk.’
‘Oh, I agree.’ she said. ‘He’s got a lot of growing up to do, especially if he wants to stay married to her. She seemed like a nice person…’
Married to her. Rita was his wife!
I was traumatized. My first big crushes. One was a nun. And one was a married woman. I briefly reconsidered entering the priesthood. I had lost all faith in finding a woman to marry when I grew up. And I also gave up any thoughts of working in show business’
But that was long ago. Long before I spent 45 years as a professional stagehand. And long before I found my wife of 60+ years.
Let the New Year ring in
with the promise of peace
As for me
I make my usual resolutions
Eat more pie
Maybe this year I can keep the first two longer than a couple weeks
I never have a problem keeping the last one